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For so long I thought I was the only one in seminary thinking this way, constantly wondering what the point of it all was. I have wondered when and why seminary became the only way one could make a career out of ministry in an established denomination. I have wondered what all these guys and gals (myself included) are really learning if all we do is read about what other people learned by actually living. I have found that theological books in isolation from experience do little or nothing (or worse yet, do damage) for our pursuit of real wisdom and true service to Christ. Hence the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. The brightest people in the world may prove to be dull in wisdom. Likewise, the most promising “theologians” may not have a clue as to how to speak into the lives of normal people unless they’ve learned how their knowledge plays out in real life.

The idea that I was the only one feeling this way was quite disconcerting and I was beginning to wonder what my place would be in the whole equation. Could I really be an integral part of ministry and the academic community if I saw that environment’s limitations as irreparably debilitating (or at least heading in that direction)? Then I found out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Apart from other students who have expressed concern for the American approach to education in general, I also found allegiance with a more notable fellow, one who (and this shouldn’t surprise us in the least) was an integral part of a theological revolution. He said,

“It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.”

That man was Martin Luther. His words were, as was just about everything at that point in time, reactionary to what heluther.jpg saw to be a mistaken projection of scholasticism in theological education. And while I’d personally love to use that quote to try to get out of my assigned reading, I believe there is something much more important on the fundamental level that Luther is getting at. I can conceive of a very well-read individual who has absolutely no life experience, no practical outcroppings of his knowledge. In my mind, this man has little or nothing to contribute and I would be very wary to accept anything he had to say. On the flip side, I can conceive of an individual well-versed in the ways of the world yet with no desire to search God’s Word or be challenged in his mind. This man, likewise, has little to offer since his wisdom is not grounded. God’s Word, however, calls us to do both. Nowhere in it does it say, “Be ye therefore satisfied with knowing as much as possible and keeping it to yourself.” Nor does it say, “Blessed art thou who doesn’t waste his time studying or increasing in knowledge but interacts with people a lot.” That’s because everywhere you see a call to increased knowledge, you see a complementary call to work it out practically. Each is dead without the other. Somewhat ironically, even Luther’s quote is based on events that could not have happened had Luther not been VERY well-read. The Reformation may have been spawned by an academic reaction to scholasticism, but what fueled the fire was Luther’s (and others) refusal to allow faith to be relegated to an academic exercise. It was life and death for these men. What have we let our faith become?

What I think Luther meant was that all his education, all his reading and knowledge meant relatively little until it was placed in the realm of life and death. Only then can you really know what it means, for example, when Paul says, “For to lavendar_lotus.jpgme to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Only then can you really know what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Only then does Christ’s commands to feed the hungry and minister to the widows and orphans become lenses through which the whole Gospel is viewed. Only through being persecuted can we really understand “Blessed are you when people persecute you because of me.” How can we know what that means just by reading it or by reading what others say about it? The heart of the Gospel is rooted in knowledge, but it blooms through experience, and each is useless without the other.

WOW! I didn’t mean to delay this long in posting this 2nd part! Sorry ’bout that y’all. I actually wrote this a time ago, I don’t even remember what it says. I trust I still agree, but if it’s heresy, it’s just because of the errors of my youth…a month ago.

Due to the abnormally lengthy exegesis of the original post (at least abnormally lengthy for me!), I decided to split this into two; the first being the heady exegetical crap, and the second being my personal reflections on it. I do realize that I’ve titled this post “Me, Myself, and I-saiah 48″: scroll down to see the first post). So here’s where the Me part comes in.

This passage forces me to ask myself What happens when afflictions come? Do I remember that God has said, “Don’t be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon you, as if something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12)? Hmmm…now I don’t burn sacrifices to other gods or clothe myself in sackcloth or do any kind of strange dance rituals…at least not literally (my roommates might tell you I do dance, but there is nothing religious in this exercise…and nobody is supposed to see; I just can’t resist the hypnotic beats of Bananarama…and Mr. Mister…“κύριε ἐλέησον in the darkness of the niiiiight!”).

But I do find I seek solace in my gods and not in my God. I seek pleasure in the temporary things whether they be food, clothing, movies or anything from Target. I sacrifice money to these gods and I clothe myself in their ritualistic garb (Guess jeans, Polo shirt, etc.). I bitch and moan as if something indeed strange were happening to me, as if I were the only one in the world being afflicted (see my previous post “When the World Shrinks”), as if God had it in for me. In these moments I feel as if I’m being utterly destroyed, but of course I’m not: it’s this furnace of afflictions refining me. Then again, there is a sense of destruction involved in refining. Just as what is refined is never the same afterwards as it was before (having undergone a deconstruction-reconstruction), so it is with sanctification: it is progressive, and lessons build upon lessons, each time requiring that we must die to the self a little more. And I’m convinced that process never gets any less painful, although hopefully we grow in our peace and understanding of the pain.

So each time you go through a period like this, remember Isaiah 48: God is showing you something new, and He knows that you probably won’t understand the new things yet, or the means in which you must learn them…it is precisely that you don’t understand them that you have to go through refining. But don’t forget the prophecies of the past and how they worked out for your deliverance. Those past trials in and of themselves were blessings because through them God will remind you today or 30 years from now of who He is and what love He has for His children that He found it pleasing to enter into an everlasting covenant with us, that His anger might not burn against us.

PART I

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I was doing homework for my hermeneutics class the other day and “stumbled upon” a passage somewhat unrelated to the passage I was studying. I say “somewhat” because, as we learn at Westminster, EVERY passage is related in some way to EVERY other passage in the Bible (yes, even Leviticus)…it’s rather amazing, really. Anyway, the passage I happened upon was Isaiah 48 (specifically 1-11). As I casually glanced over the first few verses my eye caught verse 4:

“Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew
and your forehead brass…”

I found myself chuckling, not just because it sounded like my mom talking to my dad, but also because I realized that God was speaking directly to me, and it was the kind of eureka moment that was just plain humorous. It defined me so well (especially the “forehead of brass” part — I’m really thick-headed sometimes!) that it compelled me to continue on.

Of particular interest to me was the “because…therefore” idea presented between verses 4 and 5. The thrust of verse 5 is that God declared “the former things” (prophecies of what He would do, especially in relation to obstinate Israel) before they happened so that the people would not stray towards other gods (see Jeremiah 44:15-17). God did this, not because He had to (see vs. 9 later on), but because the Israelites were “brass-headed”. Because of their obstinacy, God knew they would run to other gods in the face of adversity. So He told them in advance that this was what He would do.

jewsinexile.jpgNow we see in verse 6 and onward that God is announcing new things through Isaiah and calling Israel to remember the Lord’s ways concerning the “former things”; basically a call to obedience despite not having understanding. These were things previously unknown to the Israelites, prophecies about how God would deal with them, most immediately in their return from exile, but ultimately looking forward to the coming of Christ and redemption through Christ.

One might posit that it seems this passage is saying God had to do all this, otherwise He would’ve lost His creation. As if we needed to be reminded that God owes us nothing and needs us for nothing (He is utterly self-sufficient), we receive some glorious insight in verse 9: Not only does this verse tell us that we deserve the implications of God’s anger, it also tells us that God restrains his anger “for my name’s sake,” “for the sake of my praise,” and “for my sake, for my sake.” Could He make it any clearer?

In Malachi 3:6 the covenantal aspect is added in: “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” We are not consumed because God has promised that He will not let His anger burn against His children. He is bound by the covenant only in that he voluntarily entered into a covenant with His people and it is not possible that God should lie (Hebrews 6:17-18). Thus we have encouragement to press onward in our faith, knowing we shall not be deserted nor destroyed. Yet this does not mean we won’t be tried. As the Israelites endured the Exile as their “furnace of affliction” (vs. 10), God has found it necessary and pleasing to refine His people through such trials.

(to keep the length of this post down I’ve broken it up into 2. As such, your comments could very well shape the continuation as it will include my thoughts and reflections on this passage personally…I’d love to make this a corporately reflected post, so leave your thoughts/experiences for all of us to be blessed by…)

To be continued…

At the risk of encriminating myself do I write this current post. It is an issue that has occupied the recesses of my mind for months, making it’s way to conscious thought only sporadically. But now I find little else demanding my cognitive energy, so I’ll take that as my cue to discuss the issue of responsiblogity. I should say from the outset, that I am referring quite exclusively to those debates of potentially caustic nature that exist in our theological bubbles.

It occurred to me when I was writing my very first post in the blogosphere last year that a certain pretension was accompanying my words. There was a powerful element to it, and it was sweet. Perhaps it’s because I’m the youngest in my family and always feel my words are never quite taken seriously, perhaps it’s because of simply arrogance and pride; whatever the reason, it made me feel important to know that other people, random people would be reading what I had to say. And when I received recognition from other bloggers, my gosh there’s something seductive about that wine. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t link to blogs we find interesting, informative, perplexing, etc. But I am confessing this, and likewise charging others to look into themselves concerning what and how they blog.

The experience gave me a sense of authority that I did not deserve. People, most of us are not professionals in our fields, so why do we get recognition as such? Most of us are not professionals, so why do we speak as if we are? There needs to be a humility accompanying our words concerning issues of delicate manner that naturally occur only when speaking face to face with our opponents. Let us remember, blogging is BY FAR THE WORST MEDIUM POSSIBLE for debate. THE ABSOLUTE WORST! We are more apt to write things to nameless, faceless entities that we would not (and should not) otherwise write out of mere respect for our peers and elders.

Again, I am not advocating that we avoid the touchy issues, but rather that we engage in what I’ve termed “responsiblogity”. While the word doesn’t actually exist, I don’t think I really need to go too far into defining it. But some simple guidelines may suffice concerning our theological debates:

  1. Pray before you write.
  2. Pretend the person (your opponent) is sitting right next to you.
  3. Don’t say anything that would prevent you from later being able to say, “I love you brother (or sister) and may God bless you and our discussion.”
  4. Remember the possibility that when we get to heaven, there’s a great possibility that ALL of us will say, “Oh, crap! I was way off!”
  5. Consider others better than yourself (sound familiar?).
  6. If your intent isn’t for the edification of the kingdom, it isn’t worth writing.
  7. Guess what: most of this stuff only enters the conscious thought of about .000001% of the world’s population.
  8. Ask yourself, “Is this issue worth dividing between me and a brother (or sister)?” Your answer to that question better be “No.” the majority of the time. Write with that in mind.
  9. Write what you want, show it to someone who you trust to deal honestly with you and discuss it, sleep on it, then re-write it.
  10. Be slow to speak, slow to anger; be quick to love and serve.

Now surely there are others, much of which can be categorized under “common sense”, but others perhaps not so much. I guess what I’m trying to say is we must constantly seek to keep peace if at all possible amongst ourselves and make sure our love for each other shines through even more in the midst of our disagreements, lest the world look at us and say, “They’re just like us.”

“…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” I Peter 3:15

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” II Cor. 10:5

I was sitting in the Barnes and Noble café today, sipping on my imposter coffee (I brought my own; it’s not Starbucks ‘cause I don’t work there anymore and only now realize the ridiculousness of their prices), whilst nibbling on a grotesquely overpriced chocolate cupcake and reading Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What. My attention was drawn to a conversation the employees were having behind the counter concerning a customer who was looking for the section containing the Bibles.

Guy – Hey, how come you knew the exact location of the Bibles?

Gal – Please, I’m a good Catholic girl, of course I knew where the Bibles were. What about you, aren’t you Jewish?

Guy – Yeah, but only by descent. I’m definitely not religious in any way at all.

Gal – Aww, that’s sad.

Guy – Is it?

Gal – Yeah, you should believe in something. I mean, you don’t have to believe in Judaism, but you really should believe in something…not even necessarily God, but maybe in, like, the animals or trees…something!

My mind was flooded with all sorts of thoughts and feelings at that moment. It was obvious that by “believing in something” they meant “live for something.” One thought of mine was, “Mike, say something. Tell them everyone believes in something whether they realize it or not. Tell him that if nothing else, people live for themselves (which I’d say is at least better than living for trees!).” And then, of course, after saying this, I’d whip out my Van Tillian lightsaber and completely shatter the world as they knew it by exposing their foundational presuppositions (note sarcasm).

I found it interesting how that short conversation defined “religion.” Basically, religion was relegated to whatever it is that drives you in life. And apparently, to this girl, trees could be a sufficient reason for living. Maybe she was referring to nature in general, that Baha’I idea of our connectedness with it and, therefore, our responsibility to it. I dunno, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.

Another thought was just how sad it was that a self-proclaimed Catholic woman would endorse such malarkey (that may be the first time I’ve ever used that word). Then I figured that this is probably the approach the majority of secular America would take towards Truth, at least functionally, and that I was surrounded by that very same secular America. And then a thought entered my mind that saddened me more than all the others put together: I had sat there, and said nothing, content to yet again remain an anonymous Christian, fearful of the waves an absolute assertion for Biblical Truth would make in this relativistic post-modern world.

But it goes deeper. Why hadn’t I said anything? Was it really because I feared their response? Was I afraid I wouldn’t have the answers to their questions? Was it because I wanted them to think well of me (or at least not think anything of me at all)? I came to this conclusion: I was afraid they’d see that I didn’t really buy the product I was selling. Or perhaps more accurately, I was afraid they might actually be convinced of my position, when I myself wasn’t even sure of what that position was. Now just a disclaimer here, I’m not doubting my faith, but rather echoing Miller’s words, “… I am only saying I think I know who [God] is, then I figure out I don’t know very much at all.” So it’s not that the product is bad or in any way faulty, but I’m starting to realize (again) that it doesn’t quite work the way I thought.

If you read my previous couple blogs, you’ll get a glimpse at the workout my faith has been getting as of late. And I’m confident (and thankful) that I will not be the same on the other side of this valley as I was before entering it. I guess that’s the whole point. Yet these valleys do not excuse us from the mandate spelled out in I Peter and II Corinthians. According to I Peter, sharing our faith is not an expression of how well we feel spiritually at that moment, but rather an expression of honor towards the Lord who is holy. It is God’s holiness that demands we share our faith, which precludes any spiritual temperament we might have at any given time. And even if we are experiencing confusion or dryness in our faith, we trust that our words will still go forth and be blessed according to God’s unfailing power and sovereignty.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of being a stranger in a strange land is dealing with these awkward and problematic earthly vehicles our souls have taken on. On the one hand, we see in their infinitely genius design the very hand of God. But in a sin-broken world, the details of that genius tend to go awry. And so we’re left with inconveniences such as headaches, acne, hangnails, receeding hairlines, gastrointestinal discomfort (hehe), and the list goes on. We’re also left with diseases of a more tragic nature: cancer, AIDS, strokes, infertility, bullet and stab wounds, etc. As believers, we’re called to view even the worst of these things in light of God’s Word, and more specifically, in light of His progressive plan of redemption, re-creation, and sanctification. Easier said than done.

But at the risk of simplifying the issue, I’d like to at least broach the subject, and I hope people have more to say in commentary. This issue has come to the fore for me in recent days as I’ve been suffering from seeminly endless shin splints (I think I may have actually fractured my shin, but the result is the same). Unlike many people, I run because I enjoy it. I enjoy the creation around me, the mechanics of the human body, the rush from having beaten a previous time, and for some reason, life seems clearer and my path less obstructed after a nice long run. Recently I’ve been training to take part in the NYC Marathon in November, with several shorter races between now and then.

So, to be stricken with shin splints (or fracture) has become not only a frustration, but also a profoundly spiritual struggle. I question why God would allow me to be laid up when I’m just trying to keep my body in shape (I realize I’m deluding myself here, certainly there are elements of self-righteousness involved). My frustration is not unlike a child whose parent has just taken away his favorite toy because he’s been naughty. Yet my temper tantrum continues.

The other day, in my Hermeneutics class, Dr. Poythress was going on about steps in the hermeneutical process, yet in the context he interjected this bit of wisdom: “Our bodies experience decay so that we might not put our hope in this world, but rather in God.” Bam, right in my stomach. My immediate thought was, “Ok, I’ll put my hope in you, God…BUT PLEASE FIX MY SHIN!!!” I don’t think that was quite the response God was searching for. I’ve always been a tough nut to crack, but I can feel myself cracking now. My shin probably will get better with time…but it may not. And to be ok with that, I need to first detach myself from the hope I have in this world and my own selfish pursuits, replacing them with a hope in what can not be destroyed. Not that I shouldn’t have any hope that my shin will get better or that I’ll someday have a stable job etc., all those hopes in and of themselves are quite honorable. But they must not supplant our desires for allowing God to mold us and shape us in his own perfect way. In another class that same week (I forget which), the professor made the observation that of the hundreds of prayers in the Bible, a relative few are of the “Gimme this…I need that” sort. Now Christ did teach us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread…” but at the same time, it seems that today’s Christian world (or at least mine) is more likely to concentrate on this type of prayer rather than laud and honor, and simply basking in the sovereignty of God even in the midst of desperate struggle (e.g., Psalm 40).

So where do we derive our hope?

I think of my mom’s fibromyalsia and the seeming nonsense of it. Does she have this debilitating ailment because she refuses to find her hope in God? Not necessarily, but if there must be a reason, certainly one is for her to be an example to me of great perseverance in placing her hope in Him who will one day redeem that disease as His own and she will no longer suffer in it. I don’t think my mom has given up hope of being relieved of her pain this side of heaven, but I do think she’s come to the peaceful resignation of being able to say, “God, even if you never take this from me, my hope will still be in you.” She may be able to find meaning in her suffering by virtue of being an example to her son, but that only goes so far: it is virtuous enough, but our suffering has profound meaning completely apart from anything we might be able to see in this life, simply because we are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

I must include this final thought, which could be the topic of a whole new post, but considering all that has happened this week, this post would be incomplete without it. For years, I thought (perhaps subconsciously) that assurance meant being sure of your faith. This is completely backwards and will never hold water in the face of struggle or adversity. Our assurance comes from the fact that even when we struggle so much or find ourselves in such a pit of despair that we can’t even see our own faith, God’s hand is still around us.  Our assurance doesn’t come from us holding on to God.  It comes from HIM holding on to US.

Amen?

Psalm 16

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Sometimes the idols of our hearts are evidenced by the amount of time we spend thinking about them. For me, my most notable idols are the ones that make my world shrink, and nothing else is worthy of my thoughts but that thing. So when happiness is not achieved from that thing, my entire existence is contained by that shrunken, darkened world. “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.”

But in that dark night, by God’s grace, I begin wondering what happened to the light I used to know. I cling to a vague recollection of joy unfettered and find myself curious as to what the source was. When I read this psalm, David’s words remind me where that joy comes from. It is the result of having God where He belongs: “at my right hand.” With my Savior at my right hand He instructs my heart and gives me counsel, such that even in darkness I am fed. And there I see my blessed inheritance. My idols darken my soul, but in the presence of my Lord “there is fullness of joy.”

“You hold my lot.” I have two options here: I can use it to blame God for my situation or I can use it to be comforted in it. Where I go depends on where my God is. If He’s at my right hand, I will recognize my blessed inheritance; but if I have replaced Him with some other god, I will be quick to blame Him for my pain. Where is God when the world doesn’t make sense? This psalm doesn’t so much address that question as it does the question behind it: what joy do we have in that confusion? With God Almighty at our right hand, over our life, we have pleasures forevermore.